The story…must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person. – Maxwell Anderson
by Al Philipson
For a story to be interesting, there must be conflict. If your goal is to describe some utopian society filled with all sorts of technological wonders, you don’t have a story, just a boring travelogue. How interesting would Beowulf have been without Grendel, his mother, and the dragon?
Ben Bova once described “a story” as “a narrative description of a character struggling to solve a problem.”
So, what do you need to do to provide the problem or “conflict”?
Conflict comes in several flavors:
Physical: The form that comes immediately to mind is physical conflict. Two gunfighters facing each other down a dusty southwestern street. The townfolk are all running for cover. The guy in the black hat goes for his gun, but the fellow in the white hat is right behind him and is a bit faster. Two shots ring out and the guy in the black hat folds up and slumps to the ground, either dead or badly wounded.
Or two women are duking it out. Lots of screaming and hair pulling until Tess Truheart decks Laura Lustful and wins Henry Heartthrob (sorry about the names).
But physical conflict isn’t everything. Some people think it’s overused, trite, and gets in the way of true character development. Me? I like a good “shoot ‘em up”, but then I tend to be a bit old-fashioned. On the other hand, I don’t much care for two-dimensional characters, especially villains.
Internal: The protagonist has a mental problem (schizophrenia, multiple personalities), a moral dilemma (sinning vs obeying God, doing right vs cheating to make more money), incompatible desires (wants to mess around with his sexy secretary, but wants to keep his marriage intact), fear (rescuing his best friend in the mine field vs self-preservation). You get the idea.
The problem often lies deep within her, unknown or at least not acknowledged, until some external force or situation forces it into the foreground. Claustrophobia caused from being trapped in a small space as a child may give her screaming fits when she has to crawl through a long, tight tunnel to escape a fire or imprisonment.
I once wrote a story where the protagonist had a fear of commitment and marriage because his first marriage was an unmitigated disaster. So, he flits from one girl to another, carefully avoiding any sort of commitment. Then I put him in a situation where he’s forced to choose between four great women. Tame stuff compared to what you can do to your main character.
Antagonist: The protagonist and the antagonist could want the same thing (a promotion, the girl/guy, win an athletic contest, etc.) and the story involves that conflict. They may even be best friends otherwise, such as two Olympic class runners who compete for the gold while remaining best friends (how can he bring himself to beat his best friend?)
They don’t have to be friends. Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham were definitely not friends and had differing goals. Robin was for Richard and the Sheriff supported John.
A guy and his boss can squabble over some important decision involving the future of the company/country/mankind. Make the guy “put it on the line” and risk losing his job. Heck, get him fired thus forcing him to work outside the system without an income to save the world.
Two people can have honest moral differences.
You can use an antagonist to attack your protagonist at his/her weakest points to bring out internal conflict as well. Robin was originally an obedient liege of the crown and a strong proponent of justice. When Prince John and the Sheriff started preying upon the people, Robin’s conflict of obedience got in the way of his sense of justice. He had to resolve the struggle and then give up all his privilege and comfort to become an outlaw living in the woods (camping out year ‘round) because he decided he valued justice more than his duty to the crown.
Duty vs God is a moral dilemma. Must a soldier do his duty and “take out” an enemy politician via assassination or obey the sixth Commandment not to commit murder?
Nature: Nature itself can be the antagonist. A man who “drops out” of society to live alone in the woods (a mountain man for instance) must now survive against weather, wild animals, and perhaps the indigenous people (Indians?). Or you may be dealing with the victims of an airline crash in some wilderness (a popular scenario).
Anything else you want to dream up.
So, your job is to be a troublemaker. Heap abuse on your protagonist. Make his/her life difficult or miserable. Make him struggle to overcome his problems.
And, as several people have said: never solve a problem until you’ve raised at least two more – until the climax (arc) that ties everything together (unless you’re writing a series and enjoy “cliff hangers”).